History of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football
- 1 The beginning (1887–1917)
- 2 Rockne era (1918–1930)
- 3 After Rockne (1931–1940)
- 4 Leahy era (1941–1953)
- 5 After Leahy (1954–1963)
- 6 Parseghian era (Era of Ara)(1964–1974)
- 7 Devine era (1975–1980)
- 8 Faust era (1981–1985)
- 9 Willingham era (2002–2004)
- 10 Weis era (2005–2009)
- 11 References
The beginning (1887–1917)
American football did not have an auspicious beginning at the University of Notre Dame. In their inaugural game on November 23, 1887 the Irish lost to Michigan by a score of 8–0. Their first win came in the final game of the 1888 season when the Irish defeated Harvard Prep by a score of 20–0. At the end of the 1888 season they had a record of 1–3 with all three losses being at the hands of Michigan by a combined score of 43–9. Between 1887 and 1899 Notre Dame compiled a record of 31 wins, 15 losses, and four ties against a diverse variety of opponents ranging from local high school teams to other universities. At the beginning of the 20th century college football began to increase in popularity and became more standardized with the introduction of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) in 1906. That organization would become the NCAA in 1910. Notre Dame continued its success during this time and achieved their first victory over Michigan in 1909 by the score of 11–3 after which Michigan refused to play Notre Dame again for 33 years. By the end of the 1912 season they had amassed a record of 108 wins, 31 losses, and 13 ties.
Jesse Harper became head coach in 1913 and remained so until he retired in 1917. During his tenure the Irish began playing only intercollegiate games and posted a record of 34 wins, 5 losses, and one tie. This period would also mark the beginning of the rivalry with Army and the continuation of rivalries with Michigan State.
In 1913, Notre Dame burst into the national consciousness and helped to transform the collegiate game in a single contest. In an effort to gain respect for a regionally successful but small-time Midwestern football program, Harper scheduled games in his first season with national powerhouses Texas, Penn State, and Army. On November 1, 1913, the Notre Dame squad stunned the Black Knights of the Hudson 35-13 in a game played at West Point. Led by quarterback Charlie "Gus" Dorais and end (soon to be legendary coach) Knute Rockne, the Notre Dame team attacked the Cadets with an offense that featured both the expected powerful running game but also long and accurate downfield forward passes from Dorais to Rockne.
This game has been miscredited as the "invention" of the forward pass but is considered the first major contest in which a team used the forward pass regularly throughout the game. (For example, Homer Woodson Hargiss regularly called the play for quarterback Arthur Schabinger at the College of Emporia as early as 1910.)
Rockne era (1918–1930)
Knute Rockne became head coach in 1918. Under Rockne the Irish would post a record of 105 wins, 12 losses, and five ties. During his 13 years the Irish won six national championships, had five undefeated seasons, won the Rose Bowl in 1925, and produced players such as the "Four Horsemen". Knute Rockne has the highest win percentage (.881) in college football history.
Among the events that occurred during Rockne’s tenure none may be more famous than Rockne’s "Win one for the Gipper" speech. George "the Gipper" Gipp was a player on Rockne’s earlier teams who died of strep throat in 1920. Army came into the 1928 matchup undefeated and was the clear favorite. Notre Dame, on the other hand, was having their worst season under Rockne’s leadership and entered the game with a 4–2 record. At the end of the half Army was leading and looked to be in command of the game. Rockne entered the locker room and gave his account of Gipp’s final words: "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy." The speech, although possibly fictional, inspired the team and they went on to upset Army and win the game 12–6.
The last game Rockne coached was on December 14, 1930 when he led a group of Notre Dame All Stars against the New York Giants in New York City. The game raised funds for the Mayor's Relief Committee for the Unemployed and Needy of the city. Fifty-thousand fans turned out to see the reunited "Four Horsemen" along with players from Rockne's other championship teams take the field against the pros.
Rockne died in the plane crash of TWA Flight 599 in Kansas on March 31, 1931, while on his way to help in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame. The crash site, located in a remote expanse of Kansas known as the Flint Hills, now features a Rockne Memorial.
Rockne was the subject of the 1940 film Knute Rockne, All American.
After Rockne (1931–1940)
Upon Rockne’s death Heartley "Hunk" Anderson took the helm of the Irish leading them to a record of 16 wins, 9 losses, and two ties. Anderson was a former Irish player under Rockne and was serving as an assistant coach at the time of Rockne's death. Anderson resigned as Irish head coach in 1934 and was replaced by Elmer Layden, who was one of Rockne’s "Four Horsemen" in the 1920s. After graduating, Layden played professional football for one year and then began a coaching career. The Irish posted a record of 47 wins, 13 losses, and three ties in seven seasons under Layden, the most successful record of an ND coach not to win a national championship. He left Notre Dame after the 1940 season to become Commissioner of the National Football League (NFL).
Leahy era (1941–1953)
Frank Leahy was hired by Notre Dame to take over for Layden in 1941, and was another former Irish player who played during the Rockne Era. After graduating from Notre Dame, Leahy held several coaching positions, including line coach of the "Seven Blocks of Granite" of Fordham University that helped that team win all but two of their games between 1935 and 1937. He then coached the Boston College Eagles to a win in the 1941 Sugar Bowl and a share of the national championship. His move to Notre Dame began a new period of gridiron success for the Irish, and ensured Leahy's place among the winningest coaches in the history of college football.
Leahy coached the team for 11 seasons, from 1941 to 1943 and 1946 to 1953. He has the second highest winning percentage (.864) of any college coach in history. He led the Irish to a record of 87 wins, 11 losses, and 9 ties including 39 games without a loss (37–0–2), four national championships, and six undefeated seasons. A fifth national championship was lost because of a tie in 1953 against Iowa, in a game that caused a minor scandal at the time, when it appeared that some Irish players had faked injuries to stop the clock. Leahy retired in 1954 reportedly due to health reasons, although he later maintained that he left because he felt he wasn't wanted anymore.
From 1944 to 1945, Leahy served in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged as a Lieutenant. Ed McKeever, Leahy’s assistant coach, became interim head coach while Leahy was in the Navy. During his one year at the helm the Irish managed 8 wins and 2 losses. McKeever left Notre Dame in 1945 to take over as head coach of Cornell University. McKeever was replaced by Hugh Devore for the 1945 season and led the Irish to a 7-2-1 record.
After Leahy (1954–1963)
The departure of Leahy ushered in a downward slope in Notre Dame’s performance, referred to in various circles as a period of deemphasis. Terry Brennan was hired as the Notre Dame head coach in 1954 and would stay until 1958. He departed with a total of 32 wins and 18 losses. But note: the 32 wins included 17 in 1954 and 1955. From 1956 to 1958 his record was 15–15. Brennan was a former player under Leahy and before joining the Irish had coached the Mount Carmel High School team in Chicago, Illinois and later the freshman squad at Notre Dame. His first two seasons the Irish were ranked 4th and 9th respectively. However, in the light of what would follow those first seasons, some observers began to wonder if Brennan's early success owed more to the residual effects of Leahy's coaching on Brennan's first two cadres than it did to any notable brilliance of his own.[who?] It was the 1956 season that began to darken his reputation, for it became one of the most dismal in the team’s history and saw them finish the season with a mere 2 wins, including losses to Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Iowa. The Irish would recover the following season, posting a record of 7-3 and including in their wins a stunning upset of Oklahoma, in Norman, that ended the Sooners' still-standing record of 47 consecutive wins. In Brennan’s final season, though, the Irish finished 6-4. Brennan was fired in Mid-December and served as the conditioning coach for the Cincinnati Reds during spring training in 1959.
Fifty years after Brennan's appointment, one could look back at Notre Dame's hiring policies and notice a curious pattern: the recurrent hiring of inexperienced coaches in the wake of legends. Brennan following Leahy; Gerry Faust following the hall-of-fame tandem of Parseghian and Devine; and, finally, Davie following Lou Holtz. In each case the Irish had hired a youthful coach with no experience as a head coach, and in each case the choices led to bitter disappointment on the field.
Joe Kuharich took over for Brennan in 1959 and to date remains the only Irish head coach to leave the team with a losing record. During his 4 year tenure as coach, the Irish finished 17-23 and they never finished better than .500 in a season. Hugh Devore once again filled in the gap between coaches and led the Irish to a 2-7 record.
Parseghian era (Era of Ara)(1964–1974)
Ara Parseghian was a former college football player for the Miami University Redskins until 1947 and became their assistant coach in 1950 and head coach in 1951, after a two-year stint playing for the Cleveland Browns. In 1956 he moved to Northwestern University, where he stayed for eight years.
In 1964, Parseghian was hired to replace Devore as head football coach and immediately brought the team back to a level of success comparable only to Rockne and Leahy in Irish football history. These three are the only coaches to have an 80% or greater winning percentage while at Notre Dame - Rockne at .881, Leahy at .864, and Parseghian at .836. Parseghian's teams never won fewer than seven nor lost more than two games during the ten game regular seasons of the era.
In his first year the Irish improved their record to 9–1, earning Parseghian coach of the year honors and a cover story in Time magazine. It was under Parseghian as well that Notre Dame lifted its 40-plus year-old "no bowl games" policy, beginning with the season of 1969, after which the Irish played the number one ranked Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, losing in the final minutes in a closely contested game. The following year, Parseghian's 9-1 squad ended Texas' Southwest Conference record thirty-game winning streak in the 1971 Cotton Bowl game.
During his eleven-year career, the Irish amassed a record of 95-17-4 and captured two uncontested national championships as well as the MacArthur Bowl in 1964. The Irish also had two undefeated seasons in 1966 and 1973, had three major bowl wins in five appearances, and produced one Heisman Trophy winner. In 1971, Cliff Brown became the first African-American quarterback to start a game for the program. Parseghian was forced to retire after the 1974 season for medical reasons.
Devine era (1975–1980)
Dan Devine was hired to take over as head coach upon Parseghian's retirement in 1975. Devine was already a highly successful coach and had led Arizona State, Missouri, and the Green Bay Packers. When he arrived at Notre Dame he already had a college coaching record of 120 wins, 40 losses, and 8 ties and had led his teams to victory in 4 bowl games. At Notre Dame he would lead the Irish to 53 wins, 16 losses, and 1 tie. The Irish were winners of 3 major bowl games and captured one national championship in 1977. Devine resigned as head football coach in 1980.
Faust era (1981–1985)
Gerry Faust was hired to replace Devine for the 1981 season. Prior to Notre Dame, Faust had been one of the more successful high school football coaches in the country. As coach of Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio he amassed a 174–17–2 record. Despite his success in the high school ranks, his success at Notre Dame was mixed and his record mediocre at best. In his first season the Irish finished 5–6. The most successful years under Faust were the 1983 and 1984 campaigns where the Irish finished 7-5 and made trips to the Liberty Bowl and Aloha Bowl respectively. Faust resigned at the end of the 1985 season to take over as head coach for the University of Akron. Faust was recently invited by head coach Charlie Weis to speak to the 2006 team at the annual football awards banquet.
Holtz era (1986–1996)
Lou Holtz had 17 years of coaching experience by the time he was hired to lead the Irish. He had previously been head coach of William and Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, and Minnesota. Holtz began in 1986 where his predecessor left off in 1985, finishing with an identical record of 5 wins and 6 losses. However, unlike the 1985 squad, which was generally outcoached and outplayed, Holtz's 1986 edition was competitive in nearly every game, losing five out of those six games by a combined total of 14 points. That would be his only losing season as he posted a record of 95-24-2 over the next ten seasons adding up to a 100-30-2 docket overall.
In contrast to Faust, Holtz was well known as a master motivator and a strict disciplinarian. He displayed the latter trait in spades when two of his top contributing players showed up late for dinner right before the then top-ranked Irish played second-ranked Southern California in the final regular season game of 1988. In a controversial move, coach Lou Holtz took his 10-0 Irish squad to L.A. without stars Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks, who he suspended for disciplinary reasons. This was not the first time these players had gotten into trouble and the players had been warned there would be serious consequences if it happened again. His move was vindicated when the Irish defeated USC anyway.
Holtz was named national coach of the year (Paul "Bear" Bryant Award) in 1988, the same season he took Notre Dame to an upset of #1 Miami in the Catholics vs. Convicts series and a win over West Virginia University in the Fiesta Bowl, thus capturing the National Championship. His 1989 and 1993 squads narrowly missed repeating the feat. Overall, he took Notre Dame to one undefeated season, 9 consecutive New Year’s Day bowl games, and top 10 finishes in the AP poll in five seasons. Holtz resigned from Notre Dame in 1996.
Davie era (1997–2001)
Bob Davie, who had been Holtz's defensive coordinator from 1994 to 1996, was promoted to head coach when Holtz departed. One of his first major decisions was to fire long-time offensive line coach Joe Moore, who then successfully sued the university for age discrimination. On Davie's watch, the team suffered three bowl game losses (1997's Independence Bowl, 1998's Gator Bowl, and 2000's Fiesta Bowl), it failed to qualify for a bowl game in two others (1999 and 2001). The highlight of Davie's tenure was a 36-20 upset win in 1998 over fifth ranked Michigan, the defending national champion. Davie also helmed the thrilling 25–24 home game victory over USC in 1999. Davie nearly defeated top ranked Nebraska in 2000, with the Irish comeback bid falling short in overtime 24-27. The aforementioned 2000 Fiesta Bowl was Notre Dame's first invitation to the Bowl Championship Series. The Irish were humbled by 32 points to Oregon State, but would finish #15 in the AP Poll, Davie's highest ranking as head coach. The 2001 squad was awarded the American Football Coaches Association Achievement Award for its 100% graduation rate.
Following the 1998 season, the team fell into a pattern of frustrating inconsistency, alternating between successful and mediocre seasons. Scandal rocked the program when the NCAA placed the university on probation at the end of the 1999 season, citing gifts given to football players by a Notre Dame booster, Kim Dunbar. Despite Davie's rocky tenure, new athletic director Kevin White gave the coach a contract extension following the Fiesta Bowl-capped 2000 season, then saw the team start 0-3 in 2001 – the first such start in school history. Disappointed by the on-field results, coupled with the Joe Moore and Kim Dunbar scandals, the administration decided to dismiss Davie. On December 9, 2001, Notre Dame hired George O'Leary to replace Davie. However, New Hampshire Union Leader reporter Jim Fennell — while researching a "local boy done good" story on O'Leary — uncovered misrepresentations in O'Leary's résumé that had influenced the administration's decision to hire him. The resulting media scandal embarrassed Notre Dame officials, and tainted O'Leary; he resigned five days later, before coaching a single practice.
Willingham era (2002–2004)
Once again in need of a new head coach, the school turned to Tyrone Willingham, the head coach at Stanford. Bringing a feeling of change and excitement to campus, Willingham led the 2002 squad to a 10-2 regular season record, including an 8-0 start with wins over #7 Michigan and #11 Florida State, and a #4 ranking. This great early start, however, would be the lone highlight of Willingham's tenure, as Notre Dame finished the year with a heart-breaking loss to Boston College, then lopsided losses to USC and North Carolina State (in the Gator Bowl). The program faltered over the next two seasons under Willingham, compiling an 11–12 record. During this time, Notre Dame lost a game by at least 30 points on 5 occasions. (For perspective, in the previous 40 seasons (1961-2000), Notre Dame had lost by at least 30 points only four times. Bob Davie lost by 30 points only once.) They also suffered a home loss to Purdue by 25 points. Furthermore, Willingham's 2004 recruiting class was judged by analysts to be the worst at Notre Dame in more than two decades. Citing Notre Dame's third consecutive 4-touchdown loss to arch-rival USC compounded by another year of sub-par recruiting efforts, the university chose to pay out the remainder of Willingham's five-year contract at the conclusion of the 2004 season.
Reports circulated that Urban Meyer might be hired as Willingham's successor. Meyer was a highly sought after coach and a former wide receivers coach at Notre Dame. Following a well-publicized courtship by the Irish, Meyer chose instead to accept the head coaching position at the University of Florida. Notre Dame subsequently hired Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots (who at the time were en route to their third Super Bowl victory in four years). Weis had graduated from Notre Dame, but had never played for its football team.
Weis era (2005–2009)
Charlie Weis became head football coach for the Irish beginning with the 2005 season. In his inaugural season he led Notre Dame to a record of 9–3, including an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, where they were defeated by the Ohio State Buckeyes 34–20. Weis's impact was apparent when, in the first half of the first game (against Pittsburgh), Notre Dame had gained more offensive yards than it had in 5 games combined, during the previous season. Quarterback Brady Quinn would go on to break numerous team passing records that season and rise to the national spotlight, by holding 35 Notre Dame records as well as becoming a top Heisman contender. The school administration was so impressed with the turnaround, it made the surprise move of offering Weis a (ten-year) contract extension midway through his inaugural season.
Weis and the Irish went into the 2006 season with a #2 preseason ranking in the ESPN/Coaches Poll. They finished the regular season with a 10-2 record, losing only to Michigan and USC. Notre Dame accepted a bid to the 2007 Sugar Bowl, losing to LSU 41-14. This marked their ninth consecutive post-season/bowl game loss, the longest drought in NCAA history. As a result, Notre Dame dropped to #17 in the final rankings. This also gave the program the Division 1-A record for the most consecutive bowl game defeats.
In the wake of a graduating class that sent eleven players to the NFL, plus All-American wide receiver and Notre Dame baseball pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the Chicago Cubs, the 2007 season (3-9) included various negative milestones: the most losses in a single year (9); two of the ten worst losses ever (38-0 losses to both Michigan and USC); and the first 6-game losing streak for home games. Its losses to Navy and Air Force marked the first time Notre Dame has lost to two military academies in the same season since 1944, and the first time in the BCS era that Notre Dame went winless against mid-majors. The Naval Academy recorded their first win over the Irish since 1963, breaking the NCAA-record 43-game streak. Notre Dame did manage to close out a season with two straight wins for the first time since 1992.
In 2008, the Irish started 4–1, but completed the regular season with a 6–6 record, including a 24-23 home loss to Syracuse, the first time that Notre Dame had fallen to an eight-loss team. The combined 15 losses from 2007 to 2008 marks the most losses for any two-year span. Despite speculation the university might fire Weis, it was announced he would remain head coach. Weis's Notre Dame squad ended the season breaking the Irish's NCAA record nine-game bowl losing streak by beating Hawaiʻi 49-21. In the process, Notre Dame scored its highest point total of the season, its highest point total ever in a bowl game, and broke 8 other bowl records. The bowl win also helped Notre Dame to a 7-6 final record, its 102nd winning season in 120 years of football and Weis' third in four years.
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